The Beetmonger’s Journal by Scott Starkey as Aubrey Foil [Comp01]

IFDB page: The Beetmonger’s Journal
Final placement: 5th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

When I wrote LASH, one of the things I had some fun with was splitting up the functions that we traditionally assign to the PC. The conceit of the game was that the player was controlling a robot via the IF interface; the robot reported its experiences in a first person, present tense voice, resulting in exchanges like this:

>x me
I cannot see you. We are only connected by a satellite link.

The Beetmonger’s Journal takes this sort of complexity one step further. The game begins, told in the first person voice by the Dr. Watson-ish assistant to Victor Lapot, famous archaeologist. However, unlike Infocom’s Sherlock, where Watson actually was the PC and Holmes just tagged along, in this game it is Lapot whose actions are controlled by the player, even as the results continue to be reported by the assistant in a third person past tense voice, resulting in exchanges like this:

>x me
Lapot looked over in my direction. I stood close by, available to
offer my assistance in any way possible. Just in case, I kept my
possessions handy: a shovel, a pick-axe, a canteen, a steno notebook,
a pencil, a package of "gorp", a 50' length of rope, a compass, a
pistol, and a clean pair of undies.

I thought this response in particular was lots of fun — not only did it immediately make clear that the voice of the parser and the object of the commands were two different characters, but it also subtly provided a pretext for compass-based movement, lent plausibility to the two characters as a legitimate archaeological expedition, and poked a bit of fun at the voluminous inventories of typical IF PCs. And to put the cherry on top, the Watson character’s name was Aubrey Foil — the same as the author’s comp pseudonym, thus reeling the various character layers neatly back into the matrix of a memoir written by a famous scientist’s close companion.

Even better, a little ways in, the game does a POV shift that adds yet another narrative and character layer, and this shift is handled as neatly as can be. The background color changes, the tone of the writing alters a little, and little touches like an epigram, a printed date, and and a cleared screen smooth the transition handily. The voice remains third person past tense, but the parser’s voice and the object of commands have dovetailed back into one character, a different character from the two introduced in the frame story. Then, at intervals, we get glimpses of what’s happening in that frame story, and those bits are literally enclosed in a frame, backgrounded with the appropriate color from that narrative layer.

I have to say, I was quite impressed with all this POV manipulation — I think it was the best part of the whole game. I got excited just thinking about the possibilities for parallel action and dramatic irony that this technique opens up. This particular game doesn’t take much advantage of these possibilities, but it does a fine job of breaking new ground on the trail blazed by games like Being Andrew Plotkin. There were some other nicely programmed conveniences as well. For instance, one puzzle involves an action that the player will have to repeat several times throughout the game; The Beetmonger’s Journal implements this by requiring that the proper action be entered the first couple of times, then handles it automatically from that point forward. This sort of sophistication requires extra work from the programmer, but it really pays off in the player’s experience, and this game extends that kind of thoughtfulness to the player throughout.

Amidst this smooth coding, there were a few flaws. Typos, factual errors, and formatting problems were infrequent, but far from absent. In addition, there were a few places in which the game sported outright bugs. The most glaring problem, however, was with a puzzle. It’s not a puzzle everyone will encounter, because at a crucial decision point the game bifurcates into two separate plot paths, and this puzzle is only on one of those paths. However, that was the path I chose, and this puzzle tripped me up enough that I was forced to go to the walkthrough, which is unfortunate, given how smoothly the game had delivered hints up to that point.

Basically, there are two problems with this puzzle — I’ll discuss them in fairly vague terms to avoid spoilage. First, the clue for the puzzle seems to be embedded in an environmental “atmosphere” message that only prints randomly. This setup has the dual disadvantage of fading into insignificance after several instances and possibly not printing when the player most needs to see it. A crucial clue whose absence will stop the player from progressing probably shouldn’t be random. The other problem is that the correct response to this clue entails the use of a verb that’s both logically unlikely and undemonstrated anywhere else in the game. Consequently, even if I had seen the clue when I most needed it, I’m not sure it would have occurred to me to use the necessary verb — I just would never have thought it would work, because it’s rather unusual and because it’s a bit implausible.

These problems are a bit of a letdown within a game containing so many excellent portions, but they don’t detract enough to take away the essential fun of being enveloped by all those wonderful layers.

Rating: 8.8

Zombie! by Scott W. Starkey [Comp97]

IFDB page: Zombie!
Final placement: 12th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

I love the beginning of Zombie!. [SPOILERS FOR THE PROLOGUE AHEAD] In it, you play Valerie, a junior at the local college who is enjoying a relaxing camping trip after having finally dumped her loser boyfriend Scott. The atmosphere of the camping trip is very well-done, from the CD player spinning 80s hits to the various characters squabbling over how to build a campfire. Equally well-done is the terror of learning that there is something awful lurking in those woods, and it’s coming to get you. You run, but to no avail: you are overtaken and killed… and then the prologue is over and you find yourself in your actual role: that of Scott, the unlucky guy who has just been dumped by his heartless girlfriend Valerie, ridden his motorcycle out into the country to get his mind off the breakup, and (wouldn’t you know it?) run out of gas in the remote woods. The viewpoint shift caught me off-guard, and it worked marvelously. I felt like I had a better insight into my character after having seen him through the eyes of another, and vice versa for the character I played in the prologue. Viewpoint shifts in traditional fiction can make for a dramatic effect; interactive fiction, with its customary second person form of address, made the shift all the more dramatic, at least this time. It also serves perfectly to crank up the tension: one of the first things you hear with Scott’s ears is a scream — it sounds like Valerie, but what would she be doing out here in the woods? [SPOILERS END]

Unfortunately, after this promising beginning Zombie! stumbles badly. [MORE SPOILERS HERE] For one thing, after taking so much time to develop the relationship between Valerie and Scott, the game never returns to it! I fully expected to see Valerie show up again as a zombie, to see Scott’s emotional reaction to encountering her in that state, and to find out what happens after he rescues her from zombification. A reunion, perhaps? Well, no. In fact, the prologue is the last we see of Valerie. Now, I usually like it when a game proves itself less predictable than I thought it would be, but this time I felt cheated. I wouldn’t have paid so much attention to Valerie or put so much time into learning about the relationship had I realized that she was just a throwaway character. [SPOILERS END] Doubly unfortunate is the fact this is far from Zombie!‘s only problem. There are numerous bugs in the code, hand-in-hand (as they so often are) with an unpleasantly high count of mechanical errors in the writing.

I kept finding myself feeling frustrated, because every time I really got into the game, allowed myself to get interested in its tensions, a bug or a spelling error would come along that would shatter mimesis and deflate the emotional effect. The thing is, the game does a great job of building that tension. It’s a b-movie all the way, no deep or serious issues here, but it’s definitely got that suspenseful, creepy feeling that the best b-movies have. (Yes, I’m aware of the irony in that phrase, so as Sideshow Bob says, you needn’t bother pointing it out.) The sound of heavy footsteps approaching, or the feeling of driving rain beating against a worn, gothic mansion, or the sight of horrific creatures staring dead ahead (literally!), and similar gothic pleasures were all very well-executed in this game, until you hit the inevitable technical error. Still, better to have a good game with lots of bugs than a mediocre game executed flawlessly. Bugs are easy to fix. When Starkey fixes them, Zombie! will definitely be one to recommend.

Prose: The prose isn’t beautiful by any means, and it often shows signs of awkward construction or phrasing. On the other hand, it does achieve many suspenseful moments, and quite often has some very nice pieces of description or atmosphere. I found the rain very convincing, and the eerie outside of the mansion was also well-portrayed. In addition, the prologue had some well-done dialogue and atmosphere, and built the tension just right for entry into the game proper.

Plot: The plot was a good combination of the spooky and the silly, with the emphasis on the silly. I found it reminiscent of some of the early LucasArts games, especially the moments with Ed the Head. The kitschy charm of the mad scientist, his lumbering assistant, the haunted mansion, the unholy army of the dead, etc. was great. The main disappointment I had with the plot was the ending. It felt tacked on, as if there were more story to tell but because the game is a competition entry the author didn’t have time to explore it. [SPOILERS AHEAD] Also, as I mentioned above, the emphasis placed on Valerie was rather odd considering that she never again showed up in the game. Finally, I know this is just a personal preference, but I felt a little annoyed that in the end of the game, I couldn’t foil Dr. Maxim’s nefarious scheme. I understand there’s a long tradition of apocalyptic endings in this kind of story, but this ending didn’t manage the triumphant feeling of destroying evil or the spooky feeling of inevitable defeat. [SPOILERS END]

Puzzles: I actually liked the puzzles in Zombie! quite a bit. Some of them were a little tacked on (the measuring cups), and the overall puzzle framework (collect the elements of a recipe) is quite shopworn by now. However, all the puzzles, cliched as they may have been, fit very well into the overall story, and that seamless fit makes a lot of things pretty forgivable. If the game hadn’t been plagued by bugs, its puzzles would have come very close to achieving the goal of aiding the narrative rather than obstructing it.

Technical (writing): There were a significant number of mechanical errors in Zombie!‘s writing.

Technical (coding): The game also had quite a number of bugs. It needs at least one round of intense playtesting before it’s really ready for the world at large.